A Changed Context

TEXT Shelagh McCartney

In the period since World War II, the phenomenon of global migration has caused widespread and unplanned urbanization that has gradually transformed our planet into a seemingly incontrovertible urban order. A new paradigm of city-making is occurring.

Similar to other periods in history, the globalizing city has made new demands on the designer to address the tensions of our changing global context. In the past, architects have responded later than those in the social sciences–they have been slow to incorporate global issues into their building practices. In the continuously globalizing world, there is a need for designers to make propositions rather than merely react to the past to utilize their imaginations and multi-tasking abilities.

The fundamental difference in the growth trends of cities of the past is that they were based upon industrialization within their own countries, rather than through current global forces. People have built and then intensified the edges of cities for centuries, eventually forming communities that have matured to become valuable parts of the city. What has changed in recent times is the scale of these areas due to continuing urban migration. With one of every two urban dwellers predicted to be living in slum conditions by 2025, more than 1.5 billion people will have no other option available to them other than finding housing through informal urbanization–settlements built and existing outside of official urban development regimes.

This continuous process has transformed the idea of what defines a city, challenging the notions of urban planning and redevelopment best practices. The urban fringe is no longer an insignificant site occupied by a minority, but a strategic region where important aspects of the future development of a city will occur. While these informal and often creative mechanisms have provided the primary solutions for housing at the level of the resident, the modalities of informal settlements have wasted land and services, the societal costs of which are significant. The physical design of our homes, neighbourhoods and communities shapes every aspect of our lives, and yet architects are often desperately needed in the places where they can least be afforded.

Social Activism

The origins of social or humanitarian design can be traced as far back as the late 1800s when social reformers began to turn their attention to housing conditions of the poor in reaction to the squalid conditions of working-class neighbourhoods in many cities transformed by the Industrial Revolution. Photographers such as Jacob Riis and Thomas Annan famously documented the slum conditions, prompting a reform movement that inextricably linked health, welfare and productivity to adequate and healthy housing. As an antidote to the ills of the city, social reformers also adopted the concept of town planning, and when combined with Modernism, had a profound influence on the construction of low-income housing projects in the following decades.

Following World War II, architectural culture emerged with a renewed social consciousness and a formal vocabulary inherited from early 20th-century Modernism, and began to evolve as a global force. Modernism created the desire for equal rights, conditions, benefits, and outcomes for common workers within these increasingly industrialized societies. Today, most societies have subscribed to the modern ideologies of democracy, human rights, liberty and equality–widespread standards expected from governments by most citizens. Modernism affirmed the power of human beings to create, improve, and reshape their environment with the aid of scientific knowledge, technology and practical experimentation. It encouraged the re-examination of every aspect of society–from commerce to philosophy–with the goal of finding that which was “holding back” progress, and replacing it with new, progressive–and therefore better–ways of reaching the same end.

Need for Designers

The greatest humanitarian challenge we face today is that of providing shelter. Many of the world’s rapidly growing cities are located in areas which gained sovereignty or had a great shift in their political systems after World War II. These cities were previously dominated by colonial rule, where agents of imperial power controlled the systems and implementation of formal building and city design. In the rapid development of cities today, international systems and standards are being used and are needed to ensure general safety in dense multi-storey development. The current number of architects in these cities is very low. In Rwanda, the number of architects per million capita is 0.6, 15.6 in Nigeria, and 59.2 in Malaysia. In contrast, most developed nations have between 230 and 550 architects per million capita. Clearly, there is a need for more architects in rapidly expanding cities in order to keep pace with the demand for growth.


Designers have progressed from working as agents to being global actors, particularly in countries of “The Rest”–or the so-called third world. Working as experts, first as technocrats and then as advisors, designers achieved power, either by design or through their best efforts. Their opinions were held in high regard and had the ability to influence policies and practices as well as attract investment. The expert is supposed to be a credible professional with no political or local conflict of interest, but the selection of the policy to be undertaken and who will construct the building is political. Designers need to be aware of this conflict and must educate themselves on these issues.

The Modern experiment utilized social housing as a locus for architectural theory. From Team X onward, architects approached the city with the intent to liberate the individual and to design spaces and buildings that encouraged new forms of social interaction and housing. Critics of these interventions question the responsibility of experimenting with the world’s poor. Today, architects experiment with construction techniques and typological models in areas of “The Rest” rather than the established and connected West, where failure would be catastrophic to reputations.

Urban Renewal

Designers embarked on ambitious housing plans with the strength of Modernism. Developed and developing countries alike launched new urban renewal programs which initiated slum clearance programs based upon housing acts in the 1930s. One of Modernism’s strongest tenets of architecture, urban design and planning was its disdain for housing conditions within the slums and the belief that the slums had to be replaced with new, modern housing. The Modernist notion held that new physical structures would yield patterns of socialization which would lead to poverty alleviation.

The housing policy debate became polarized between the extremes of slum clearance and slum upgrading. Slum clearance was expected to help eliminate substandard housing stock, and former slum-dwellers were to be provided with new public housing. However, typically in both rich and poor countries, redevelopment projects led to a loss in the total number of housing units, and large sectors of communities and thus the cultures of those specific communities were destroyed.

By the 1960s, Modernist housing strategies were being strongly criticized by designers for exacerbating the housing shortage for their flawed belief in physical determinism and their assumptions about the physical preferences of beneficiaries. The most influential critic of the intended slum clearance housing policies was architect John Turner, who claimed that government-provided medium-rise housing was unsuitable for low-income groups and that extreme policies were not required as housing conditions in squatter settlements would i
mprove over time. Turner convinced governments that they should cease what they do badly, and allow the primary actors of the private sector to provide and manage housing. Many governments restricted their policies of slum clearance and reduced their programs to develop more public housing despite the continuing need for additional housing. This “self-help” school addresses housing as a social necessity, and when left to their own devices, people will build dwellings corresponding to their economic capacity, social circumstances, and cultural habits. State support and planning mechanisms were needed for elements that people could not provide for themselves, such as basic infrastructure, certain building materials, and financial resources.

Housing Policy

As the political climate of the world changed in the 1970s, the concept of self-help gained momentum due to the triumph of democracy and the free- market thesis. The poor were no longer seen as a burden but as a resource. Designers continued to influence through basic self-help housing projects and concepts. Some examples are Charles Abrams’ and Otto Koenigsberger’s “core” model as part of a United Nations mission to Ghana, and Millard Fuller’s creation of Habitat for Humanity, which worked on a partnership basis between volunteers and homeowners, which had the advantage of speeding up the construction process and lessening the burden on struggling families because they were not doing it alone.

Although designers participated or played major roles to mobilize self-help housing programs, the very concept negated the traditional role of the architect. Design was not perceived as adding value, and architects acted as trainers and enablers. Once again, the role of designers in “The Rest” was called into question. It would require a whole new generation of architects, urban designers, policy-makers, planners, humanitarian aid workers, and others to bridge the gap between design and policy. In doing so, not only would they reaffirm the essential role of design but demonstrate the ability to build sustainable communities.

Today, evidence of this disconnect of policy and design being resolved is evident. For example, Chilean architectural firm Elemental is using design to influence policy, as winners of a design competition to provide a model of social housing. The competition was organized by the Chilean Ministry of Housing, who asked Elemental to rewrite the housing policy to enable better design which hybridizes the self-built and governmental provision housing models. The design enabled the building of an initial 36-square-metre house that contained essential services while allowing for additional self-built construction to expand the house to 70 square metres.

“Bottom-Up” Planning

A movement toward greater community engagement took place as designers were influenced by the failures of many of the large-scale public building projects of the 1960s. In “The Rest,” participatory, bottom-up or mutual-help planning relied on the poor urban dwellers’ potential to manage their own development using their own local resources, complemented by external technical and financial support. Many architects worked to bridge the gap between providing basic shelter and building sustainable communities. In 1983, architect Balkrisna laid the foundations for what would become a vibrant mixed-income community in Indore, India, by combining the best of the site-services model with a more heightened design sense. The project was designed with community engagement by using the cluster home model to encourage inhabitants to expand their homes progressively over time, which allowed the community to embellish the houses according to individual taste. Other community participation projects led by architects followed.

In all projects and especially projects where experts are involved and the community engaged, ethical issues of probability and possibility are introduced. Today, design-specific NGOs are evolving to address this issue. For example, each year, Design Corps–in association with a local non-profit organization or school–hosts its Structures for Inclusion (SFI) conference, which uniquely exposes attendees to both pathways and the of impact of alternative community-based work. Architecture for Humanity’s founder Cameron Sinclair brings the message of architecture and design solutions to humanitarian crises to popular culture, and harnesses the power of professional design to build safer, more sustainable and highly innovative structures that become assets in their communities.

“When a new, planned building rises in the slum–be it a public toilet or a sewing cooperative–it immediately becomes a monument. It was conceived by an architect, it indicates things are changing. People understand they now have the right to what was only available in the so-called formal city.” (Jorge Mario Juregui, architect)

Where do we go from here? The chief concern is that architects continue to make positive changes in the cities of “The Rest,” and the sensibilities of global actors and the globalizing world are shifting. The architect of the 21st century will require skills to not only design functional cities to meet the needs of individuals and communities, but also to delicately balance the competing priorities of economics, aesthetics and ethics while meeting policies and regulations in an ever-shrinking world. Are architects prepared for the breadth of their new roles as global actors? CA

Shelagh McCartney is an architect and urbanist who is currently a doctoral candidate at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, studying informal settlements in rapidly expanding urban agglomerations.

Governments Led by Architects Addressing Needs

In Curitiba, Brazil, the city’s master plan and “Bus Rapid Transit” system actively connects areas of informal urbanization to help residents obtain the benefits of growth, including access to jobs, recreation and other elements of urban community. Under the guidance of mayor and architect Jaime Lerner, Curitiba responded to bloating growth with an integrated approach by introducing the first pedestrian street in Brazil in 1971, and thus prioritized the pedestrian over the automobile. The Bus Rapid Transit system cost less and was implemented faster than a subway system, and a change to the city plan prevented construction of buildings in the centre to a system where buildings are constructed along the linear connections to the dense outlying communities. By 1992, almost 40 percent of Curitiba’s population resided within three blocks of major transit arteries. This clear integrated transportation plan reduced ambiguity for developers, discouraged false speculation on undeveloped lands, and provided clear structural corridors for growth to determine settlement patterns rather than mobility needs arriving after settlement.